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Vols Must Overcome Road History, Youth on Saturday

Butch Jones-1-6There are many ways to measure the challenge that Tennessee is up against when traveling to No. 4 Oklahoma this Saturday night.

The year was 2009 the last time Tennessee beat a team with a winning record on the road (Kentucky). The Vols haven’t knocked off a ranked team on the road since their comeback win over Georgia in 2006. They haven’t defeated a top-5 team on the road since 2005 (LSU). They haven’t beaten a non-conference team from a “Power 5” conference on the road since 2003 (Miami).

Here’s a look at the last 10 games they’ve played against top-10 teams on the road:

9/14/13 @No. 2 Oregon 59-14 L
10/16/13 @ No. 1 Alabama 45-10 L
11/02/13 @ No. 10 Missouri 31-3 L
09/29/12 @ No. 5 Georgia 51-44 L
10/22/11 @No. 2 Alabama 37-6 L
09/19/09 @No. 1 Florida 23-13 L
10/24/09 @No. 1 Alabama 12-10 L
10/11/08 @No. 10 Georgia 26-14 L
9/15/07 @ No. 5 Florida 59-20 L
10/07/06 @ No. 9 Georgia 51-33 W

The Vols went 1-9 during that stretch with an average score of 37.6-18.5 favoring the opponent. That’s an average defeat of just over 19 points per game, or, roughly, the spread Tennessee faces when it heads to Norman.

It’s a tough task. You get the point.

But then add the fact that Tennessee is taking one of the youngest teams in college football into this situation and you can really get a sense for the task ahead.

“I do know this for a fact, over half will be making their first road trip ever at the University of Tennessee,” coach Butch Jones said. “Again, they have to learn what it takes to go on the road and compete at a high level and play winning football and block out all the clutter and distractions. The road focus that it takes to go on the road.”

Great challenges do bring tremendous opportunities, however. And that’s what Tennessee also has on Saturday night. The Vols most likely aren’t ready to take that next step as a program and win this game. There’s too much inexperience, too little depth and the talent level still needs a touch more improvement before they can be taken too seriously in such a showdown. But if it happens, it would be a monumental step for Jones and his program. The players realize that.

“Being 3-0 now would be incredible,” said quarterback Justin Worley. “Going on the road to Norman, playing the No. 4 team in the nation. Getting that third win would be huge to us and huge to kind of set this program back on the right track. … They’re not unbeatable, but we need to be on top of our game.”

Unbeatable, no. But Oklahoma is a very talented team that has the dangerous combination of talent and experience at its disposal right now. Stability – something Tennessee’s had very little of until recently – is a big factor in the Sooners’ success.

“Coach Stoops has done an unbelievable job, he has been there for 16 years, 88-5 as a home record, we talk about creating a home-field advantage, I would say that is a home field advantage,” Jones said. “43-10 in their last four years. But when you look at their football team you see redshirt senior, redshirt senior, junior, redshirt junior – you see a veteran group that they have been able to raise through their program, through their culture, through the expectations to what it takes to play in that football program.

“I see a football team that has no deficiencies, very deservingly of their ranking. And it is going to be a tremendous challenge going into a hostile environment where all their players know is all about winning.”

That’s something Tennessee’s not used to yet. It’ll have to be earned by this young roster. Maybe that starts Saturday or perhaps it’s a step in learning how to do it – even if it doesn’t come this week.

“Honestly, it’s probably going to feel uncomfortable at first,” said freshman receiver Josh Malone. “Norman, Oklahoma has a very hostile environment in their stadium, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and get better, play a good game, go to war with my teammates and win.”

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